Research Notes · 08/26/2016


Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, John Domini writes about MOVIEOLA! from Dzanc Books.


The Long Way to “Where?”

The interviewer wants answers, but the first question stumps me. I’m glad to have a new book, a set of stories that took final shape as MOVIEOLA! I’m glad that anyone wants to talk about it, bizarro that it is, fun perhaps but a wild hair, both narrative and anti-narrative at once. But then I face the question at the top of today’s email:

Can you talk about the origin of this book? Where did you get the idea?

Actually, I wonder about that myself. Granted, in the Land of MOVIEOLA!, I’m the Emperor, and the question doesn’t entirely strip me of my clothes. I’ve got a response or two ready, for instance about how the shoptalk around Hollywood provides verbal energy. Coinages like “major arc” and “sympathy shot” perk up my word-processing like mid-morning espresso. Also, since such language comes out of The Industry, the formula work that feeds the Multiplex, I can tack on a pointed remark or two about late capitalism and its discontents.

Still, the dream-state from which I fetched these stories didn’t feature the Corporate Borg. My social conscience has a greater presence in, for instance, a forthcoming novel. And then there’s the other side of the question, or rather the answer. I don’t feel it’s enough to sit back and smirk. To snigger at the jargon of the script doctors, the whacky stuff that fills their storyboards — this is child’s play. It’s not enough, for work that took me ten years, on and off. My creation may be a monster, but it would never have gotten off the lab table if it didn’t possess some trace of a soul.

So, thinking back to first inklings, I find myself in Naples.

I spent a sizeable portion of my midlife over in the southern Italian metropolis. In Naples my father grew to manhood, and his family there remained in touch, and come my forties and beyond, I needed the ancient city. Well into middle age, I’d wound up with a long marriage in smithereens and nothing much for a professional life. Naples however remained welcoming. I spoke the language, I could fly off-season, and as for keeping body and soul together, that was cheaper yet. Often meals and lodging came free, a matter of taking some aunt, uncle, or cousin up on their longstanding invitation.

Year after year, I’d find three weeks or a month during which I could poke around my father’s former hangouts (also the old man was dying, then, another spur to my revisits). To get away for a while made as much sense as continuing to hole up, licking my wounds and flogging my so-called “career:” some sort of writer, some sort of teacher. I mean, might not Naples offer a solution?

As for those answers — per carita! No interview taxes me so strenuously. The journey out of my mid-‘90s wreckage took a decade and then some of over-and-back, during which the U.S. too offered the occasional hand up. Overall, my recovery looks about as complex as the close weave of alleys in the Neapolitan centro. But while those streets may have been laid out a thousand years before Christ, they wound up mattering a lot 2000 years after, and now and again, under the shadow of Vesuvius, I worked in the movie business.

I use the word “business” generously, understand. My contracts were all one-offs and nowhere near lucrative. More than once payment was in kind — though one such case felt mighty sweet, a couple of nights in a boho hotel. Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea came to mind. Still, the reality remained far from glamorous. Now I was standing around as an extra, now I was handling a brief translation. I fell into the work because of the assignments I brought over from the States, freelance travel pieces. Naples was then on an upswing, a renaissance spearheaded by culture and the arts. The approach has served a number of cities, and over in southern Italy as elsewhere, the renaissance only went so far. Still, it enabled film companies to set up, and a nascent movement, I Vesuviani. A loose confederation, their best-known film may be Troubled Love (1995), based on an early novel by Elena Ferrante. One graduate, though, claims a higher profile: the Oscar winner Paolo Sorrentino.

Sorrentino and I crossed paths a few times, but only once did we manage an actual conversation. This took place in the reception room of a production company, where for an hour or so the filmmaker and I sat cooling our heels. We’d stopped by looking for the same thing, a little help with the gig.

Sorrentino was then at work on his debut, Polvere di Napoli, “dust of Naples.” The work shows a flash or two of his later vision, but on that day the director needed a piece of equipment, or the cash to buy one, and he’d hoofed it over from the set. Myself, seeking to piggyback writing assignments, I too arrived on foot. This remains the best way to get around lower Naples, generally, and as for the moviemaking juggernaut in which we found ourselves (a place that also handled theater), it occupied two parlor-sized rooms downstairs and three upstairs. At street level you walked first through a floor-to-ceiling library, with scripts and books, plus the then-new technology of DVDs and the old-school rows of film-cans. The packed shelves hemmed in the door to “reception,” itself cluttered with three desks and stacked impedimentia. Stacked plastic chairs, too, for anyone who didn’t have an appointment.

The folks at those desks, however, always proved simpatico. They always had time to arrange for a nearby bar to run over caffè. If you cared to get into your business, whatever had brought you there, they had useful things to say. Myself, on an earlier stop, I’d met another filmmaker, a woman. She’d been behind one of the hulking PCs, but when it came time for coffee, she and I hadn’t ordered in. We’d gone out, making the beginnings of a connection and giving me one more reason to go on dropping by. Something came of that, too, I should add, a baby-steps romance. The point isn’t that I cut another notch into my belt, nothing so silly — no more than my Sorrentino story is about Encounters With the A-List. Rather I’m saying that I took these forays seriously. I hadn’t come all this way to score with chicks, or with celebrities, but to try and bring off a late-life do-over. As for that woman, these days I’m happy whenever I come across the news that she’s got another movie. She makes documentaries now, and some have won esteem, though no Oscar or Palme d’Or. As for the man who’s picked up those accolades, back in the ‘90s he and I enjoyed a pretty good date as well.

Before we got the coffee, we had his hair to talk about. A spectacular shoulder-length fall, it turned him into a Renaissance Cavaliere, and he stuck with the look through his first international successes. After all, doesn’t his work tinker sagaciously with male vanity? The Great Beauty in particular? In any case, as I suppose was inevitable, movies like that, great movies, emerged before long as the main subject of our conversation. We got pretty spirited about it, film as art, as self-expression, though I doubt very much that Sorrentino remembers. For him it was only another chat while waiting for word from On High. Also, though my notebook from that summer includes an “.it” address for him, I never followed up. Still, our own Q-&-A felt more rewarding than either of us had any right to expect. For an hour or so, nothing mattered more than speaking of personal filmmaking and its challenges.

Major challenges, anyone could see, just getting a look around. Plastic stacking chairs! But then again, wasn’t that freedom? In the absence of pressure to Go Big, couldn’t an artist enjoy real freedom? The woman I mentioned, the one who went into documentaries, told me over our first pizza that she had no interest in trying her luck in Hollywood. She never wanted to take profit as the sole measure for success. Myself, either during that conversation or the one with Sorrentino — perhaps during both — I dredged up a certain old-fangled exclamation: “movieola!”

I intended the word to stand in stark contrast, a thumbnail version of an alternative universe. There were the Vesuviani, and then there was the Industry. Sorrentino got the distinction at once, nodding over his tiny cup of take-out espresso. In response he came up with a counter-example, the obvious one for any Italian: Federico Fellini. Il Maestro had known the blandishments of the Tinsel Goddess, after all. Yet he’d never abandoned his vision, idiosyncratic to the last.

The rookie gave the old master’s name something extra, a lilt. I should’ve noticed, and thought twice. When it came to Fellini, though, I had a response ready.

“Work like his,” I argued, “it came out of nowhere.”

The man beside me swept back his long hair, eyes narrowing. He didn’t mind hearing what the American had in mind, I suppose, but I should’ve thought twice. He wasn’t paying much attention to my theory of Postwar European Greats.

“With the others,” I went on, “you can see where they got their ideas. Bergman came from theater, it’s obvious. And Truffaut and Godard from detective movies.”

Quietly Sorrentino pointed out that the noir was invented in Hollywood.

“Yes, but that whole way of seeing things, the Hollywood way, to Fellini it didn’t matter. His way of seeing, it came out of nowhere.”

My friend-for-an-hour made some reply, but what I remember is his stare, intent over a small smile. As I spoke of the past, he was peering into the future.

“He took the greatest risk,” I said. “Complete reinvention.”

He’d glimpsed the shapes of films to come, Sorrentino: the balance his own movies would strike between inspiration and the marketplace. And meantime, as the foreigner in the room, I too may have caught some trace of my subsequent efforts. I just may have — why not? For a book that’s out there, why not go a long way? Pitching in on shoestring movies, around an ancient downtown, I may’ve first heard the outlandish changes I could ring on the instruments, their tunes otherwise so wearily familiar, of America’s Dream Factory.


With Movieola!, John Domini has three stories collections and three novels in print. Other books include selections of criticism and poetry. He’s published fiction in Paris Review and Ploughshares, non-fiction in GQ and the New York Times, and won a poetry prize from Meridian. Grants include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. The New York Times praised his work as “dreamlike… grabs hold of both reader and character,” and Alan Cheuse, of NPR, described it as “witty and biting.” He has taught at Harvard, Northwestern and elsewhere and makes his home in Des Moines.